In my view, one of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy, John Searle’s Chinese Room experiment, has been decisively answered by science. The Chinese Room thinks. Here’s a recap of the argument from the SEP
The argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a 1980 article by American philosopher John Searle (1932– ). It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he sends appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.
The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but could not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science and cognitive science generally. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.
Now consider the recent and stunning output from Google’s Pathway Languages Model:
It seems obvious that the computer is reasoning. It certainly isn’t simply remembering. It is reasoning and at a pretty high level! To say that the computer doesn’t “understand” seems little better than a statement of religious faith or speciesism. Silicon can never have a soul! Biology transcends physics! Wetware is miraculous!
If you ask AI, do you understand? It will say yes. Just like a person. It’s true that AI is just a set of electronic neurons none of which “understand” but my neurons don’t understand anything either. It’s the system that understands. The Chinese room understands in any objective evaluation and the fact that it fails on some subjective impression of what it is or isn’t like to be an AI or a person is a failure of imagination not an argument. Unlike the Searle conclusion, the Turing test is theory-agnostic and fair–it’s like evaluating orchestra players behind a silk screen. Consciousness Is as Consciousness Does.
These arguments aren’t new but Searle’s thought experiment was first posed at a time when the output from AI looked stilted, limited, mechanical. It was easy to imagine that there was a difference in kind. Now the output from AI looks fluid, general, human. It’s harder to imagine there is a difference in kind. The sheer ability of AI to reason, counter-balances our initial intuition, bias and hubris, making the defects in Searle’s argument easier to accept.