Unity and the Chinese Room

The Chinese Room thought experiment has been debated by philosophers and AI researchers since it was conceived of by John Searle in 1980. The notion of a man sealed in a room and translating Chinese texts by following a series of written instructions, aims to capture the functioning of digital computers which likewise blindly follow a series of instructions but are argued to have no actual understanding of what thèy are doing. Where is the understanding? A common counter to this was to say that the room as a whole (man included) has the understanding. When I was an undergraduate student and for some years after, I accepted this response as satisfactory. After all the Chinese room can be applied to brains as well. A computer is an electronic machine and a brain is a biochemical electrical machine, allbeit with its programming encoded in distributed synaptic wirings. We have understanding, so what’s the problem?

Like the Chinese room, computers and brains have disparate parts which coordinate to perform a function. Alone the disparate parts cannot be said to understand anything, but can they as a whole really be said to have understanding? The problem is exemplified in neuroscience by the binding problem; a collection of neurons in one place in the brain may code for the colour amber, and a separate collection of neurons in another part of the brain may code for the recognition of the shape of a glass. In our conscious experience we are aware of a glass of beer. How do physically disparate mechanisms form a singular unified conscious experience? Many researchers would be content by the notion that they coordinate via communication pathways. But is coordination the same as unity? If it was a clockwork machine doing the coordinating then would we accept that it has a unified understanding? Thinkers from centuries ago when clockwork mechanisms were the height of technology may have seriously considered this, but would one take such an idea seriously today? If one is a functionalist then one is essentially forwarding this position, whilst using what is the height of technology in the modern day to argue ones case. Whether they be clockwork, electronic or bioelectrical, machines made of disparate material parts may metaphorically be said to have understanding, but that is quite different having actual understanding. Yet we have bioelectrical brains and believe them to be the seat of our understanding. How can we resolve this contradiction?

Integrated Information Theory attempts a stronger definition for the relationship between conscious experience and the physical by extending the ontological status of information in a physical system to require a ‘unified’ cause and effect structure for it to be conscious. Consciousness is a unity of its subject matter. For example, phenomenal unity is illustrated by the experience of the colour and shape of a glass of beer. Tim Bayne describes conscious unity as follows: “Any description of one’s overall state of consciousness that omitted the fact that these experiences are had together as components, parts, or elements of a single conscious state would be incomplete”. Unifying things together in this singular way, whether that be sensations, patterns, or components of an idea which together become an understanding, is more than what an analysis of materialistic machines and coordinated parts as we currently conceive them can offer. Integrated information theory, the bravest attempt to capture this unity, entails making consciousness an intrinsic part of the physical rather than something strictly emergent, which in turn leads to panpsychism as it essentially posits an equivalence relationship between causally unified information and consciousness.

Unity, such as experienced in consciousness, is not something that is really defined in any scientific field. Information integration theory is the first real attempt to start to do this. Unity is something unique to consciousness, and therefore is a worthy starting point to investigate it. I have believed for a long time that this will require new conceptual paradigms as the materialistic mechanistic ones inherent in science cannot capture its quality. However, in more recently years I have come to believe that science cannot engage with the notion of unity in a satisfactory way due to the definition of the fundamental axioms present in it since its inception. Interestingly, there has been a growing consensus among philosophers regarding this. Have a search for Philip Goff talking on Galileo’s Error if you are interested. More on this later.

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