Does a Chinese brain understand Chinese?

Let me state beforehand that I am not expert at all in the Artificial Intelligence field or in neuroscience etc. : I am a physicist working in the nonlinear dynamics field with a side interest in parapsychology and in the matter-consciousness epistemological problems, thus the following considerations on the celebrated J. Searle's "Chinese Room" or "Chinese Gym" argument may be trivial and/or well known to the experts themselves. In any way, repetita iuvant...

Now let me summarize the core of the Searle's argument:

in a Chinese gym (room), people, just manipulating symbols, pass the Turing Test on "understanding Chinese language": but if nobody in the Chinese gym understands Chinese, it is absurd to think that the whole thing (men, tables, books, walls, etc.) understands Chinese

Searle's Corollaries:

semantics is above syntax (symbolic manipulation)

a (serial or parallel) computer, running a program (thus just manipulating symbols), cannot have semantics, cannot understand Chinese...

I am forced to agree, even if someone with holistic vision could not; nevertheless I am a little disturbed, just from a logical point of view. Let me put the Searle's argument in a different form:

if no constituent of an apparatus understands Chinese, the whole thing does not understand Chinese too.

Corollary (trivial if logical):

Here "brain" is the biological one, that collection of neurons, cells, membranes, microtubules, etc. i.e. the thing we know (how deeply I do not know). I think (I am not sure!) that nobody says that a brain can understand something; J. Searle himself says that semantics is a property of the mind which is a "product" of the brain: indeed J.S. emphasizes the point that nothing without the "creative power" of a biological brain can achieve the semantic level. Let me put again the things in another way:

  1. we know that a Chinese human being understands Chinese ( supposedly ... )
  2. we agree upon that a Chinese brain cannot understand Chinese
  3. ergo => Chinese brain must produce something (let us call it "mind") which understands Chinese

Let me notice that the inference of the point 3 form the first two is at least questionable, however let us assume that the above reasoning is correct. Well, what we have is just a vague, implicit definition of mind (and a rather circular one). What is really MIND , which are its constituents, if any, how does it work and , first of all, how does the brain produce it, what is, from an operative point of view, that invoked "creative power" of the brain? To my knowledge, we know almost nothing on this (may be Indian philosophers in V century BC knew better, at least they classified and investigated hundreds of levels of mind!). Thus, merely from a logical point of view, we cannot exclude that a computer or a robot or something else (someone would add "complex enough"), no matter if it manipulates or not symbols (that's irrelevant !!!), could have this mysterious creative power and thus it could create its own mind which possibly understands Chinese ! Of course I do not really mean that a computer or a golem do it, I just notice that , at the present state of knowledge, we cannot assert the contrary and that the symbolic manipulation argument is irrelevant and finally that the whole "Chinese room" argument fails indeed to prove what it was supposed to prove.


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Bruschi Mario .

Dipartimento di Fisica- Università "La Sapienza" .

Ple A. Moro 2- 00185 Roma - Italy

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