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Machines Like Us

John Searle

John Searle is Mills Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and is noted for contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and consciousness, on the characteristics of socially constructed versus physical realities, and on practical reason. He was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000. Searle is known for his development of a thought experiment, called the "Chinese room" argument, in which he set out to prove that human thought was not simply computation; that a computational process in itself cannot have an "understanding" of events and processes. In his theory, Searle describes a scenario in which a person is isolated in a room. The individual receives pieces of paper marked with Chinese characters from under the door. Even though the person does not understand Chinese, if there is a formal sorting process for the characters then they can be filed into a meaningful order. If the room can be thought of as a computer, Searle believes that the analogy should hold for the entire brain – suggesting that a person's understanding of Chinese is an emergent property of the brain and not a property possessed by any one part. This view thus characterizes consciousness as an emergent phenomenon of the organism that is an entirely physical property (analogous to the way the pressure of a gas in a container is an emergent property of many gas molecules colliding). Intentionality lies at the heart of Searle's Chinese Room argument against computationally derived artificial intelligence, which proposes that since minds have intentionality, but computational processes do not, minds cannot be intentional by virtue of carrying out computations. Searle's books include Mind: A Brief Introduction, The Mystery of Consciousness, Rediscovery of the Mind: Representation and Mind, Consciousness and Language, Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, and Rationality in Action.

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John Searle Quotes

We've inherited this vocabulary that makes it look as if mental and physical name different realms. And it's part of our popular culture, so we sing songs about your body and your soul or we have saying about how your mind is willing but your flesh is weak, and sometimes the other way around, the flesh is willing but the mind is weak. And we have inherited, not only philosophically but in our religious tradition, we've inherited the idea that there are two quite distinct realms, a realm of the spiritual and a realm of the physical. And I'm fighting against that. I want to say we live in one realm, it's got all of these features, and once you see that then the philosophical mind-body problem dissolves. You're still left with a terrible problem in neurobiology, namely, how does the brain do it, in detail? What are the specific neurotransmitters? What's the neuronal architecture? But I think the philosophical problem, how is it possible that the mental can be a real part of a world that's entirely physical, I think that problem I can solve.