Culture Magazine

Once More into the Chinese Room

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I’ve been crashing on my GPT-3 working paper and I had a new thought about Searle’s infamous Chinese room [1].
Yet if you would believe John Searle, no matter how rich and detailed the world model included in an AI, understanding would necessarily elude them. When I first encountered the Chinese room argument years ago my reaction was something like: interesting, but irrelevant. Why irrelevant? Because it said absolutely nothing about the techniques AI or cognitive science investigators used and so would provide no guidance toward improving that work. He did, however, have a point: If the machine has no contact with the world, how can it possibly be said to understand anything at all? All it does is grind away on syntax.
What Searle misses, though, is the way in which meaning is a function of relations among concepts, as I pointed out earlier (see [2]). It seems to me, however – and here I’m just making this up off the top of my head – we can think of meaning as having both a intentional aspect, the connection of signs to the world, and a relational aspect, the relations of signs among themselves. Searle’s argument concentrated on the former and said nothing about the latter.
What of the intentional aspect when a person is writing or talking about things not immediately present, which is, after all quite common? In this case the intentional aspect of meaning is not supported by the immediate world. Language use thus must necessarily be driven entirely by the relations of signifiers among themselves, Sydney Lamb’s point which we have already investigated [again, see it in [2]).
Have I at long last wrestled that pesky argument to the ground?
We'll see.
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[1] I have written a number of blog posts about this argument. Here’s one of them: Another romp around Searle’s Chinese room, New Savanna, blog post, July 18, 2018, You can find others at the Searle link, which, however, contains other Searle posts as well,
[2] New Savanna blog post, 2. The brain, the mind, and GPT-3: Dimensions and conceptual spaces, July 29, 2020,

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