Searle's Chinese Room and Intelligent Training

In case you haven't noticed, I've been farming out the blog recently to some of my favorite running-philosophers. This is because I've been traveling all summer, and posting presently from Paraguay. (In 2009, I wrote a series of "dispatches" from Paraguay for those who are interested in what life is like down here. Here's one on running that you might like.) Vacation and travel make it difficult to continue with your regular habits--my writing and running have both been erratic. But it's for this very reason that we need to travel, to break up those old habits and allow some newness to leak in. The tendency is to think that travel and vacation are supplementary to ordinary life, but of course the familiarity of ordinary life would be mere routine without strange and new experiences. In the very same way, I hope that the inclusion of these guest pieces are not merely supplemental, but that they give you a break from my voice and perspective. They certainly are refreshing to me.

This is all a long-winded way of introducing a third excellent piece from Scout7. I'll shut up now and let him have his say. I will be back in the country soon enough and hope to begin posting again on a regular basis.

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Now that things have slowed down with life, I took some time to read through the Philosophy Bro site. In my poking around, I came across his summation of John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment.

Quick overview: take a room with a man, a whole bunch of files, some blank paper and pencils; put them in a closed room with two slots on a wall. One slot is labeled “IN”, the other is labeled “OUT”. Slips of paper with Chinese characters drawn on them enter the room through the IN slot. The man takes the slip, looks up the symbol in the files, and draws a corresponding symbol on a blank piece of paper, which he then shoves through the OUT slot. Effectively, argues Searle, this room simulates how a computer works, and that the man in the room has absolutely no understanding of Chinese; all he is doing is following a set of instructions with no context.

So, what does this have to do with running? I bet you’re thinking I’m about to go on some sort of anti-technology rant. Well, I’m not.

Instead, I’m putting this back on you, dear reader. How many of us have looked at a training plan and said, “Hey, I think I could do this”, and then followed it? Probably quite a few, I’m sure. Now, in that situation, did you ever take the time to understand what the program was telling you? Or did you just follow the instructions without trying to comprehend them? If so, how are you any better than a computer? If the argument is that syntax without semantics does not a sentient being make, then are we exercising our understanding properly when we do nothing more than follow along?

Running is, to me, an opportunity to explore, to experiment, to learn. To do this, you have to be actively engaged in your running; that means you are focusing on your body when you’re out there. Sure, you can drift away when you’re doing an easy jog around the block, but wouldn’t it be better to try to pay attention to that twinge in your right knee, or perhaps how your breathing patterns changed when you crested that last big hill?

I see people asking about whether a training plan is “good” for them. Granted, we all start somewhere, and to paraphrase a wise man, newbies are cursed to be newbies. My question to you is what are you doing to move past that newbie stage?

Now, some people may say it looks like I’m telling people not to ask questions of others; nothing could be further from the truth, I assure you. In fact, I would encourage everyone out there to ask questions of other people, of themselves. Asking questions is how you gather data. Putting a context to that data is how you turn it into information. Figuring out how to apply that information to your situation is wisdom. In other words, you should be asking questions, a lot of questions, and then you should be taking the answers and fitting them into a context that you understand and that works with your framework. And finally, you should be taking that information and experimenting with it.

When it comes down to it, one of the benefits of training is learning about ourselves; we learn what we’re capable of, how our bodies respond to training and stimuli, what works and what doesn’t. It’s an experimental, iterative process. But we take away this benefit if we follow blindly the pathways laid before us, and fail to develop a context and understanding of why there’s a path in the first place.


  1. Searle's argument is that there is no place for understanding in a purely formal/syntactic process, because obviously the man in the room doesn't know Chinese!

    However, Searle's example is a bit misleading. Linear look-up tables won't allow our computer to pass off as a human (i.e. won't let our man who doesn't know Chinese pass off as knowing Chinese), because the essentially infinite variety of conversations that our language allows and the dependence of the allowable responses on the whole conversation mean the look-up table for responses would have to be infinitely long. A better method would be to have the man in the room adjust valves controlling the flow of water through an enormous array of pipes in a way that represents linguistic input into a neural system. He could then monitor the output activity of certain pipes in order to determine his response. Of course, it is not the man that knows Chinese, it is this brain made of pipes. In other words, Searle has us focus on the man, which in this bizarre scenario is the wrong place to focus. It is counterintuitive that these pipes (or any mechanical system) could constitute a MIND, but now we recognize the circularity of Searle's argument. It is not that rule following is somehow fundamentally insufficient as an explanation of intentionality, but rather that we just haven't yet forged the 'explanatory gap' (that is, we haven't yet explained how mental phenomena are really just physical phenomena).

    Anyway, my point is ultimately a playful one: there are certain sets of rules you could follow in virtue of which you could indirectly instantiate a system which understands a training methodology, without yourself understanding it. But those aren't the types of programs you'll find in Daniels, etc., and wouldn't necessarily involve any running (demons exchanging slips of paper, etc.). In any case, you are probably better off just achieving understanding the simple and direct way - knowing the purpose of your training!

  2. It occurs to me that it might have been a bit confusing what I was trying to get at with the above comment, so I should probably come clean that yes, the post might have been motivated as a sarcastic commentary on the lack of a direct connection between the Chinese Room scenario and the value of thinking critically about training programs. However, I am just trying to be playful, not critical. Even many professional philosophers misunderstand/oversimplify this thought experiment. For example, I think that Searle himself is guilty of this, making essentially the same conceptual mistake which I think Scout also makes - identifying the man in the room (or in this case the runner) as the locus of putative consciousness in the Chinese Room example. But that's just the wrong place to look... of course this doesn't help our runner who is still left in the dark. ;) Anyway, that's what I was trying to point out.

  3. Hey mileage man,

    Thanks for the comment. I will have to let Scout answer this one, since this is his post, not mine! I admit very little expertise when it comes to the Chinese room or Searle's philosophy. I do agree with you that this connection is a bit of a stretch, and your comments help to clarify the thought experiment quite a bit.

    [I have to admit that I find the thought experiment bizarre myself, and I am unsure exactly what it demonstrates!]


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