Saturday, December 31, 2011

Purpose-driven Purpose, Part 1

There's a new "conservative" attack on America that promotes itself as philosophy. In what might be an inside joke meant for esoteric Straussians, it calls itself an Aristotelian-Thomas philosophy, or A-T for short. What better way to merge Athens and Jerusalem than to mix Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas?

There may be those who promote the A-T "tradition" for reasons other than political. This is not directed at those lost souls. I'm interested in the hacks who dress up their politics to parody love of wisdom.

Edward Feser is one of the more obnoxious of those A-T proponents. He writes for several "conservative" publications including National Review, The American Conservative, and the Catholic, neocon propaganda tool, First Things. He's written several books and also teaches philosophy. His case demonstrates why teaching philosophy and writing about philosophy does not make one a philosopher -- like teaching literature and writing about great novels does not make one a novelist.

At the core of A-T is a fanatical belief in teleology, also referred to as "final cause." Most people would simply call teleology the purpose or design of a thing. So let's try to ignore the jargon. This is little more than a re-warmed version of Paley's divine Watchmaker argument. Though they adamantly deny it, A-T is yet another version of Creationism. When Creationism didn't fly it became Intelligent Design. Now that ID is embarrassing, the argument is repackaged by different players as "final cause." The difference is in the sublimity of the lie.

Remember how Intelligent Design proponents claimed they were not Creationists? Likewise Feser makes a point of distancing himself from the Intelligent Design movement.

ID is primarily concerned with life. Living things have parts that function as if they were intentionally designed for that purpose. A heart pumps blood therefore pumping blood is the heart's purpose. In A-T terminology, pumping blood is the heart's final cause -- the thing it is meant to do. A-T accepts the theory that evolution itself could be used to produce the heart. This question doesn't seem to interest them -- probably because the question has been so strongly answered in favor of Darwin. But, in some minds, Darwin doesn't answer more pressing questions: Why do things follow any law at all? Why does any substance have a limited set of properties? What gives them those properties? What hand directs them to behave in certain ways? Ultimately, what "power" keeps them in existence in the first place?

Feser expresses A-T final cause as "the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat." [1]

Why is this important? In a boldly silly sentence Feser explains: "The A-T view is that unless we regard such 'directedness' or 'pointing' as immanent or inherent to the natural phenomena that exhibit such dispositions and causal powers, we have no way of making it intelligible why they have the manifestations and effects that they typically do." [2]

In other words, we can't understand the fact that glass breaks unless we accept the fact that glass has within it an intent to break. Supposedly this is a more intelligible reason for why breakable objects break. The claim is that a history of observations that glass does break is less intelligible than if we assign purpose or intent to the glass itself. A keen mind would notice that we can assign that "purpose" only after we observe the facts that glass tends to break. So if purpose and only purpose can make the world intelligible, it's an unfortunate fact that it's simple observations that make "purpose" intelligible in the first place. Purpose is derived from observation and can only be so derived. So if observation is less intelligible than "purpose", what basis is there for the claim that intelligible "purpose" is derived from unintelligible observation? Obviously it's a false claim. As we will see in this series of posts, A-T rests on many false, often silly, claims.

So what causes glass to break? In the A-T dogma, it was intended to break. Intent was the cause! How do we know? Let's forget how we know. Let's first claim that observation itself is unintelligible. Nothing breaks except when it's intended to break. We should assume intent is the intent of someone. Take a wild guess as to who that "someone" is! God wills glass to break.

Paley stumbled upon a watch and asked who made it. Feser stumbles on glass and asks who made it breakable. It's the same argument no matter how much Feser claims that it's not.

This A-T dogma is a Christianized New Age mysticism. Let's call it Gnu Age -- to parody A-T rants about Gnu Age Atheists. To the Gnu Ager, the universe is alive with intention. Not only does a cat intend to climb a tree but a leaf intends to fall and the earth intends to break its fall. When a baseball is thrown to a window, the glass intends to break rather than stop the ball like a steal plate might intend to do. You see, metal and glass have a different purpose embedded into their existence. If we don't understand that we can't understand anything!

Of course this is trivial nonsense. It wouldn't be worth contemplating or countering if there was no purpose behind it. But Feser's interest, his real final cause, is human behavior. There's a political purpose behind his purpose. You see, humans have a final cause too and, if we disobey, we break as surely as a window. Or more ominously, we deserve to be broken. Or even more ominously, we should be prevented from breaking. Self-assigned purpose, our own invented final cause, becomes sin. This dogma, which Feser refers to as classical natural law theory, is the sole reason why this A-T "tradition" is of any interest. The "philosophy" is blatantly political.

In the The Last Superstition Feser makes his political interest clear. Same-sex marriage 1) confounds good with evil, 2) confounds reason with insanity, 3) represents a total collapse of traditional morality, 4) demonstrates a low point in our civilization, and 5) shows we have succumbed to meglomania and erotomania. Accompanying this mania has been a rise in the "ostentatious unbelief" of the smart set. "It's as if the urbane cocktail hour secularist liberalism of the twentieth century has, by way of the slow but sure inebriation produced by an unbroken series of social and judicial triumphs, now become in the twenty-first century fall-down-sloppy drunk and lost all inhibition, by turns blaspheming, whoring, and otherwise offending all sane decent sensibilities as the mood strikes it." [3] That hogwash reminds me of the emotional screeching in Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

Far from being an appeal to reason, Feser's A-T is a flourishing of the irrational. It fuels the fears of an authoritarian personality. In one deranged moment out of many Feser asserts that the "metaphysical absurdity" of "same sex marriage" is not a matter of choice. "It is no more up to the courts or 'the people' to 'define' marriage or to decide whether religion is a good thing than it is up to them to 'define' whether the Pythagorean Theorem is true of right triangles, or water has the chemical structure H2O." [4] Such things are discovered through reason. These are not things for "democratic procedure to stipulate."

In short, Feser rejects democracy. Oh, he might permit it for a few things, but he rejects it for the important things -- those things he thinks he can discover through smugness. His mission is to ensure "classical theism and traditional morality of Western Civilization" be "restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics." His boogeyman is a specter called "secular liberalism." And it's not simply wrong, it's "a clear and present danger to the stability of any society, and to the eternal destiny of any soul that falls under its maligned influence."

Feser demands much more than a "'place at the table' of some great multicultural smorgasbord" Instead his views "ought to be restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics." This rhetoric is suspiciously totalitarian. In fact, through Feser's liberal application of words like "necessity" we find his view is necessarily totalitarian.

He declares that "secularism is necessarily and inherently a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world." When one claims a worldview is necessarily immoral, there's no room for tolerance. There's no looking the other way. And when he further claims the same worldview is insane, you had better keep him away from the straight-jacket closet. It does pose a peculiar paradox: Can an "insane" person be held responsible for immoral behavior at all? Likewise, can he be expected to cast a sane vote? Should insane people be allowed to vote?

If the secularist is indeed insane, there is obviously no need to listen to his reasoning. There's no need to consider his positions. There's no need to compromise. To compromise with insanity is insane. And finally, if that 'liberal secularist' cannot be shut-up, if he insists on insane policy, what option do we have left? How can we justify letting the insane vote? It may sound undemocratic to think we could strip votes away, but it's not so hard. We already have the method. As soon as we convict a secularist of a felony, he has no vote.

Necessity breeds necessity. Party Members! The Central Committee is in session! The issue before us is purpose. What is man's purpose? Surely no man can decide! Let us collectivize all men into one great, purpose-driven ant hill. Let us destroy the individual! Let us call upon Natural Law to make men live under Natural Law like billiard balls bounce under physical laws.

Feser constantly insists that this or that secular worldview leads, necessarily, to this or that conclusion, no matter what the advocate might argue in his defense. So Feser gets the same treatment from me. His worldview leads, necessarily, to totalitarianism.

I'll continue exploring this issue next time by examining his paper, "Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation."


[1] "TLS and formal causes" paragraph 4

[2] Ibid

[3] Feser's The Last Superstition, pages vii, viii, x, for this paragraph.

[4] The Last Superstition, page ix

(working on references)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Genesis One

In six days God created the universe, complete with everything any god would ever need including his first two worshipers, Adam and Eve. Why would God go to the trouble? The Bible doesn't tell us, at least not overtly. But since he created everything, he owned everything, and like any being of property, God had his favorite possession called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He didn't want anybody messing with this tree, especially not those upstarts, Adam and Eve.

God says to Adam, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." There we have it. God reveals his purpose. Maybe he had been itching to do this for eons: Create law. Without law, one cannot have obedience, and for this god we should learn that from the beginning, obedience is key.

This first and only law seemed simple enough and it looked like the perfect solution, except for one little hitch. There was this second god in the neighborhood, a really despicable thing, aptly disguised as a serpent. One day Eve struck up a conversation with this lowly god, and to her surprise, she discovered it had its own story to tell, a story quite different from God's story. She became exposed to that ingredient that keeps stories moving along -- conflict. The serpent tells Eve to go ahead and eat of the forbidden fruit, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." In case you missed it, the serpent is calling God a liar. This was a question that simply had to be answered. Was that one and only law really meant for Eve's good? Why does God get to decide? Isn't "good" a matter properly decided by all four residents? Why not put it to a vote? Can one solitary god be trusted to decide for the group?

What's a girl to do?

The serpent's temptation is hard to resist. After all, who doesn't want to be wise? Eve succumbs, then tempts Adam. Of course he succumbs. They are thrown out of favor and out of the garden forever.

Note that neither Adam nor Eve die on the day they eat of the forbidden fruit as God had warned. The serpent was right. In fact, Adam goes on to live 930 years, and Eve bears three children. Perhaps God misspoke.

The unavoidable fact is, God did lie -- at least if this story is taken literally. Literalists would deny this, claiming some silly thing like their spirits died to God, or their countdown to death began. But is God incapable of expressing himself with clarity? If God had meant their spirits would "die," then why didn't he just say so, precisely? If he had meant the countdown to death would start on that day, why didn't he just make that clear? It seems simple enough. Either one cannot take God's words literally, or God is a liar, or he is not competent of accurately expressing his thoughts, or he changed his mind. It is perfectly reasonable to assume God is a liar, especially in light of the remainder of Genesis. After all, he has absolutely no problem with supporting liars, deceivers, and murderers, and he himself is a murderer-holic, so why would he have any compunction about lying to Adam? The only way the literalist can explain away God's sticky moral problem is to add non-literalism to God's words. They must impose their special, metaphorical interpretation of "death."

The Gnostics had a better solution. They admitted that the creator god was immoral. For them, God was the demiurge. He was not the moral force of the universe. The fact that he created the universe gave him a big ego. He denied the existence of the true God who gave him all his power.

There is an obvious question we must ask. Why doesn't God want Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge? Is it, as literalists think, to keep evil from entering the universe, as if Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit changed the essence of God's perfect plan with one swallow? But God says that now Adam and Eve are "like one of us" -- knowing good from evil. Notice it's the tree of Good and Evil, not the tree of Evil. It's not that evil didn't exist before the big swallow, it's that Adam and Eve didn't know it existed. It follows that neither did they know that Good existed either -- this despite the fact that God was a regular drop-in. What kind of conclusion are we forced to draw from that? Adam knew God but didn't know Good? Surely literalists would deny this. After all, how could God not be Good? We could rather say that Adam and Eve didn't know right from wrong. But why wouldn't God want mankind to know right from wrong? Maybe because now man has the ability to decide these things for himself? He is no longer a slave to God's moral pronouncements? He has a moral sense of his own? Perhaps he can judge God as well?

If this Genesis God had his way we would be like infants, comfortably nursing while across the street our neighbors are being devoured, we not knowing or caring. But with our knowledge of good and evil we become outraged. Adam and Eve lost their innocence. Their eyes opened to the evil around them, including God's. Their moral sense caused their suffering. At the same time they rejected God's autocratic rule.

This was Eve's sin. She judged for herself. The knowledge of good and evil was not spoon fed to her, not portioned out at God's whim. It was no longer imposed through divine proclamation. She took it. She becomes an equal partner in her own moral system, asserting her right to recognize evil for herself.

Yahweh, too, eats from the Tree of Knowledge. Like sharks and seals, we and this god are natural enemies.

As punishment, God says to Eve, "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Many literalists take this to mean Eve, and all of her female descendants, are to suffer this same punishment. Because of Eve, all women suffer in childbirth, and they all must submit to their husband's rule. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, says:

"Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children." (1 Tim 2:11-13)

Eve's so-called first transgression condemns all women to suffer equally, and defines woman's place in the scheme of things. This barbaric theme of indirect responsibility -- that an individual is to be punished or blessed, not because of her actions, but because of another's actions (her mother's mother's mother's...mother), is the major theme of Christianity, and is wholeheartedly embraced by many Christians. How moral is such a system?

In fact, should Adam and Eve be punished at all? Is it deserved? What was their great sin? Not a hint can be found of any major felony. Eve did not steal Adam's food or cut off his head. She did not offend Adam in any way. She offended the great Creator of the Universe. She hurt his feelings. We should remember this. Sins are crimes against God, not crimes against humanity. This is why the very concept of sin is suspect.

Basically it was curiosity and a hunger for knowledge that got the first couple. The serpent said, "God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." God, not the serpent, was the true prince of darkness, wanting Man to remain ignorant, a trapped child, unlearned, unwise, and inferior. Why do Christians call Satan the prince of darkness? It was Satan who opened their eyes. God wanted them permanently shut. Damn them! Now they've spoiled everything! So God throws the rebels out on their ears before they can consume the tree of life, and possibly live forever, wise and immortal, like God. Later Yahweh admits he is a jealous god, and here is the first sign.

This creation story fails even on the metaphoric level. It is not a moral tale. It does not show us a moral God. Would you want this hothead as your neighbor? Yet Christians twist this tale into the foundation of their "moral" universe. To literalists, sin entered through Adam and exits through Jesus. They need a literal Adam as a precursor for a literal Jesus. Everything in this story must be literal. For grins, let's look at Eden from a literal point of view.

First, where is Eden, anyway? We know it is between four rivers, two of which we know by the same names today. We have satellites highly interested in what goes on there. Literal Eden has to be there because there is no literal record that God ever destroyed it. In fact, he protected it. How have we managed to miss that flaming sword at the entrance?

Ever wonder what the literal Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil looks like? Or the Tree of Life? Since it bore forbidden fruit, surely there is a forest by now. It's likely teeming with old growth. How does it taste to eat knowledge? Does the literalst take this literally? Maybe orally? Or intravenously?

After Eve was created from Adam's rib, verse 24 says: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." But this "therefore" is prior to the fall, prior to any real fathers and mothers, and certainly prior to any "cleaving," or thoughts of "cleaving." This is justifying the effect prior to the subsequent cause. It's a literal absurdity.

And what is "one flesh?" I shudder to think of that literally.

When the serpent tempts Eve, it says "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened..." Were their eyes closed before then? Where else does the Bible tell us this is a metaphor? The only way one could jump to the correct, obvious, non-literal conclusion is to draw on "worldly" knowledge -- extra-biblical humanistic experience.

When Eve blames the serpent for convincing her to eat of the fruit, God says to the serpent: "dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." Do snakes eat dust? Where in the Bible is the diet of snakes appended? Or is God lying here too?

Is the serpent evil at all? If this is a literal story -- of good vs. evil -- why does Jesus tell his disciples: "be ye therefore wise as serpents?" (Matt 10:16) The truth is, the serpent is a mythological symbol for knowledge. It's also, incidentally, the symbol of many ancient goddess religions. This is no accident.

God continues telling the serpent: "And I will put emnity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed..." Say what? Earlier God said, "Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so." There was no expressed exemption for serpents, so why did God have to add emnity between woman's seed and serpent's seed? Didn't the serpent already bring forth his own kind? Or are the serpent and woman already the same kind? Anyway, does a woman have seed? This passage does not make literal sense. It works only if it is not referring to a real woman, a real serpent, real seed. God continues telling the serpent: "it [the woman] shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his [the woman's] heel." (KJV) How many women have heels bruised by a snake? Practically speaking, how big of a snake would it take to bruise a heel? Are snakes slithering around with bruised heads? And why is Eve referred to as "her," then "it" and then "his?" Why not "she" and "her?" Because Eve is not a normal female. Eve is not a person at all. If "it" was a real person, the "cleaving" of a few verses ago takes on new meaning. Maybe the gay agenda is not that unbiblical after all.

To Adam, God says: "cursed is the ground for thy sake..." What did the ground do to deserve this? Can this verse be taken literally? If so, why would a Christian own land? It seems this curse has mystical meaning, not literal. God adds: "Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee..." Do literalsts take this literally too? Do they have the thorns to back it up?

Verse 20 says: "And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living." (KJV) This is interesting. Eve is Mother Nature, not mother of three sons. This is the literal meaning. It is also its mythic meaning. This story is primarily a creation myth, not much different from hundreds of others. That's why it is Eve who must be tempted. She is the creative principle. She needs to create the physical world as we know it. She needs to force God's hand, to keep the ball rolling. Otherwise they'd be stuck in the pre-physical garden and we wouldn't be here.

Supposedly Adam was created in God's image. Yet if Adam is physical, then God is physical. Most Christians believe God is spirit. So how does one resolve this conflict? A literal reading, with a physical Adam, does not work. Therefore Adam was some sort of archetype, a mystical symbol. He was not a physical man at all, else God is physical.

In verse 22, God says: "Behold, the man is become as one of us..." Who is the "us?" How many other Gods were lounging around? Christianity is supposed to be monotheistic. Or is God so big, he's schizo? Earlier God said: "Let us make man..." There's that "us" again. How many creators are we to suppose there were?

The literalists say that if there was no literal Adam, then Jesus was not necessary. But there is the opposite problem. If Adam was literal, there was no need for Jesus. In Luke, the lineage of Jesus is traced backward. It ends with: "...the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God." But Jesus is also the son of God. That would make Adam and Jesus half brothers. Why did God have to use Jesus at all when he had a perfectly "good" (turned "bad") son in Adam? And better yet, Adam was the real sinner so he could legitimately pay for that original sin. It makes much more moral sense. Since God wanted the whole thing to be pretty gruesome, he could have had a T-Rex bite Adam's head off and, in the process, answer more than a few nagging questions.

The only reason God couldn't use Adam, is because Adam was never around to be used. There was no forbidden fruit. There was no first law. Why doesn't that fatal commandment against eating of the fruit show up later? Why isn't it in the Ten Commandments? Because is never existed. Anyone not blinded by the "light" of Jesus knows the tree of knowledge is a metaphor, and that Adam is a archetype. If this story is literally true then God changed the rules of the game somewhere between Adam and Moses. We would have to conclude, contrary to fundamentalist whining, God's laws are not absolutes.

If Genesis has any literal truth in it at all, it would be that God could have created the universe. If so, creation is God's real written record. Why would he give us mere words when words are so ambiguous? Surely a god could do better.

Many moderate Christians see the evidence of nature, discovered through science, and realize that a literal interpretation of Genesis is nonsense. If God left us the Bible, he left us other clues to interpret it - - very good clues, found in nature. Many faithful Christians throughout history have seen things this way. By studying nature they are indeed studying God's true written record. This record is irrefutable, it's not subject to errors in translation, or errors in transcription, or the limitations of language. It cannot be appended. And best of all, any errors in interpretation will eventually be resolved. The voice of God the ancients heard was nothing more than a whisper. Nature speaks forever the same. But we hear better today. That's why the Bible is becoming increasingly marginalized. It's not up to modern standards of evidence.

What literalists show us is that their criteria for evidence is seriously flawed. They have an unusually high tolerance for nonsense. They are unable to translate old mythological languages when listening through modern ears. They refuse to recognize absurdities. Since Biblical literalists reject the voice of Nature, they reject the creator god. They end up worshiping words because that's the only thing they have left. Many other Christians are not so ignorant.

But the biggest problem with a literal reading of the Bible is the limitations it puts on their god. It's common knowledge among human beings that if one wants to tell a powerful moral story, one does not use fact, one uses fiction. "Moby Dick" is not fact, "The Great Gatsby" is not fact, "Hamlet" is not fact. Is there any truly great piece of the written word that is not, essentially, a fiction? Yet these fictions have great meaning to us. Literalists seem to be saying their god is unaware of the power of fiction. They severely limit his literary license. Picture it -- God sits in his shabby little office, hunched over the divine keyboard, knocking out his cheap little docu-dramas -- inspiration for the masses. No creative artist would stand for such a thing. Surely a god wouldn't either.

Strict, literal interpretation of the Bible cheapens the message, cheapens the story, cheapens the religion. It brings it down to the level of raw data, facts and figures, historical happenings. Trivia from the gods.

-- Don Jindra

Friday, June 10, 2011

Can Stupid be Smart?

I'm going to talk about something that tries to pass itself off as philosophy. It's called "Philosophy of Mind" but don't let the highfalutin name fool you. In the wrong hands this "Philosophy of Mind" should be called "Philosophy of Never Mind."

The topic today is John Searle's Chinese room thought "experiment." It's supposed to tell us why computers can never truly understand things like people understand things. Searle may be correct about that. Computers don't yet understand anything in the same way you or I do. I'm fairly confident of that. But Searle can reach into the future and practically guarantee computers never will understand. That seems to be overly bold to me.

The following is a slightly simplified version of what Searle wants us to believe about "mind." [1]

You are a prisoner locked in a room. You have been given a bunch of cards with strange writings. Unknown to you these are Chinese words and symbols. You have also been given a list of instructions. These instructions tell you that another series of cards are going to be shoved through a slot in the door. These will have symbols printed on them too. Your job is to follow more instructions given to you (in plain English) which tell you how to match the new cards with the old cards and create a third stack of cards which you will shove back though the slot in the door.

You do your job well and one day they give you a pardon and a diploma because you have proven you are a master of Chinese Philosophy with special merit in the thought of Confucius. Unknown to you this has not been a waste of your time. A committee of eminent Chinese philosophers has been shoving questions through the slot. Your responses were brilliant if somewhat formal and, at times, insulting.

So do you deserve this honor? Do you know anything about Confucius or even Chinese? Of course not. Searle thinks this is significant. He thinks we have proven that computers can fool us. They may appear to understand even though they do not understand. He claims this is the case because you didn't understand anything about what you were doing in that room or why you were doing it. You were simply following a list of instructions -- that is, you were executing a program. And even though you executed it well, you still understood nothing.

Searle, pretending to be that prisoner, thinks his thought "experiment" does the following: "I produce the answers by manipulating uninterpreted formal symbols. As far as the Chinese is concerned, I simply behave like a computer; I perform computational operations on formally specified elements. For the purposes of the Chinese, I am simply an instantiation of the computer program."

Right away Searle makes a fatal mistake. And with this mistake absolutely nothing else he concludes will necessarily be true. His first statement is mostly correct. He does produce the answers by manipulating symbols, symbols that he is clueless about. He collects symbols. He compares the symbols. He moves them around. He sends symbols somewhere else and he's done. These are discrete steps he executes according to the instructions he's been given. In this case he is the equivalent of a computer's Central Processing Unit (CPU). The CPU in all computers is a very simple device. Its basic functions can be reduced to: comparing, jumping, adding or subtracting, logical "and" or "or" operations, and moving values around.. Actually it can be reduced to simpler than that. So let's grant that the man locked in the room is functionally the CPU.

This is the sentence where Searle goes wrong: "I am simply an instantiation of the computer program."

No, he is not. He is the CPU. He is not the program. There is no requirement that the CPU understands the program, and in fact it never does. It doesn't know what the next instruction is. It doesn't even remember the previous instruction. It's dumb as dumb can be. Any computer scientist knows the difference between a CPU and a program. It's the difference between hardware and software. Let's say it's the difference between a car and a driver. So Searle fails to understand the thing that he claims to model. He says, "I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing." Of course. He's the hardware in his "experiment," not the program. He's the car, not the driver. He's not expected to understand. He says "in the Chinese case the computer is me." But he's confusing the man in the room with the room itself and the instructions (program) in the room that he faithfully executes. He is one small part of the system. He is not the system itself.

Searle commits the fallacy of division. A computer executing a program is a system. Not every part of a system contains every attribute of the system. Consider the system named Angelia Jolie. The system is sexy by some standards. Yet is every component of that system sexy? Is that nose hair sexy? Is that liver sexy? Consider a mechanical watch. It keeps good time. Does a gear in that watch keep good time? Does the spring inherently have anything to do with keeping good time?

The question in my mind is how this "experiment" could have generated such interest in the first place. It's so deeply flawed that it should have been shrugged off as the musings of an untrained mind.

Nevertheless, Searle continues his errors: "we can see that the computer and its program do not provide sufficient conditions of understanding since the computer and the program are functioning, and there is no understanding." But we can see no such thing because Searle has committed us to "seeing" from the limited perspective of the man-as-CPU. He is trying to avoid seeing from the system level. If his "experiment" does what he claims, if it does fool Chinese philosophers that the room does understand Chinese, then it could very well be that the system does understand even though the prisoner does not. The program and all of its hardware understands, the man is simply one part that enables that understanding.

Perhaps Searle is confused -- or hopes to confuse -- because he knows men can think. Men can understand. So if he puts man in the role of a dumb CPU we look at this "experiment" from the man's point of view. But in order to properly evaluate the "experiment" we need to look at the whole system. It's much more difficult to see that perspective from the program's point of view. It may be impossible to construct a thought "experiment" from the program's perspective.

We can easily dismiss this next assertion: "One of the claims made by the supporters of strong AI is that when I understand a story in English, what I am doing is exactly the same -- or perhaps more of the same -- as what I was doing in manipulating the Chinese symbols." This is definitely not the claim made by supporters of strong AI. Artificial Intelligence supporters are not as confused as Searle. They know the difference between a CPU and the system as a whole.

Searle goes further, claiming "not the slightest reason has so far been given to believe" that "a program may be part of the story." Why? Because his example suggests "that the computer program is simply irrelevant to my understanding." Yes it's true the program is irrelevant to the prisoner's understanding. But as man-as-CPU is not the whole system, there is simply no need that man-as-CPU understands a thing. Searle keeps making the same mistake: "I have everything that artificial intelligence can put into me by way of a program, and I understand nothing." Of course. A CPU is not designed to understand.

Let's assume Newton understood calculus since he invented it. Should we expect to yank a neuron out of his brain and demand it understand calculus? That's the standard Searle expects of AI.

Searle notes that if the man-as-CPU was passed symbols in English instead of Chinese that he would understand what was going on. This is significant to Searle but it has no significance whatsoever. Man-as-CPU is allowed to understand. He is a man after all. But it simply does not follow that he must understand. As most employees learn, one can follow orders whether the orders are understood or not.

Apparently this systems objection was brought to Searle's attention prior to publishing. A reasonable person would have admitted, "Well maybe I haven't thought this thing through." But not Searle. He pulls the old bait and switch. He recasts his "experiment" to this: "let the individual internalize all of these elements of the system. He memorizes the rules in the ledger and the data banks of Chinese symbols, and he does all the calculations in his head. The individual then incorporates the entire system. There isn't anything at all to the system that he does not encompass. We can even get rid of the room and suppose he works outdoors. All the same, he understands nothing of the Chinese, and a fortiori ["it's even more likely"] neither does the system, because there isn't anything in the system that isn't in him. If he doesn't understand, then there is no way the system could understand because the system is just a part of him."

Got that? That, my friends, is intellectual dishonesty. He's asking us to imagine a man who learns Chinese. But this is no ordinary Chinese speaker. This is a man who knows Chinese but he really doesn't know Chinese. Searle is asking us to start with a contradiction.

Why didn't Searle simply begin with this contradictory scenario? Why mention the Chinese Room at all? That's easy to see. Because nobody with a brain would have read past the first paragraph of such a silly proposal. This is what Searle now expects you to believe:

The "But I Don't Understand" Defense

Suppose you are a traffic cop. You pull over a Toyota for speeding. Inside there is a nice looking oriental couple. The passenger, a woman, appears to be pregnant. You address the driver:

"Sir, I clocked you at 95 mph."

"My wife is in labor, officer." The officer makes eye contact with her. She screams!

"Yeah, right. I've heard that one before."

"Contractions are two minutes apart!"

"Not buying. You were going 95 in a 45 mph zone. Hand over your driver's license. And turn off your engine."

"Please escort us to the hospital, officer!"

"Hands off the wheel! Turn off that engine!"

The woman screams again and the man takes off.

You, as an officer of the law, follow them to the hospital. The woman runs inside but you wrestle the man to the ground.

"My wife really is having a baby, officer!"

"Tell the judge."

As you're writing your report you learn the woman had a "false alarm." Maybe the baby will arrive next week.

A month later you're in court. The man pleads his case.

"I'm innocent, Your Honor. I admit I was going a little fast but I'm innocent of all those other charges dealing with refusal to obey an officer of the law and the flight and stuff. I simply didn't understand one word the officer was saying."

"Why didn't you understand?" asks the judge.

"Truth is I don't understand a word of English. Not one word."

"You seem to understand now."

"No, I don't."

"I don't understand."

"Me neither."

"What don't you understand?"

"None of this. None of this conversation and none of the commands given to me by the officer."

"Do you want me to cite you for contempt of court too?"

"No, sir. My contempt is not for the court. My contempt is for those who naively believe that just because English words come out of my mouth that I understand anything I say. I'm just a mouthpiece."

"A mouthpiece? Whose mouthpiece?"

"I don't know that either."

"Are you insane?"

"Would that make me innocent?"

"Is that your defense?"

"No. I simply don't understand English."

"How do you expect me to believe that?"

"Because someone programed me. They forced me to memorize the rules of the language. They forced me to memorize all the words. They forced me to perform billions of calculations in my head in order to spit out the proper responses to any English question. But I know nothing about what it all means."

"If that were the case I could ask the right question and you wouldn't have a response."

"I have an infinite number of responses so that wouldn't work."

"If you have an infinite number of responses then it's not reasonable of you to expect me to believe you have not learned English. So shut up before you get yourself into deeper trouble."

That is what Searle expects of us. In order to accept his thought "experiment" we must believe the irrational. His original Chinese Room now fits neatly into a brain. And now it becomes a bizarre assertion that a man who speaks a language well enough to fool experts really might not understand a word.

This is a lame response to the Turing Test. That is the issue. Searle merely begs the question when he claims he knows a guy who understands nothing yet can pass the Turing test. He should be honest and simply say he doesn't believe the Turing test is a valid test. He should dispense with his idiotic "experiment" because it reduces to that simple assertion anyway. Yet Searle has the audacity to claim systems objections such as mine beg the question. That's nonsense. Searle has not shown why a person or machine that converses quite normally in English should ever be suspected of not understanding.

Then Searle gets really irrational. "If we are to conclude that there must be cognition in me on the grounds that I have a certain sort of input and output and a program in between, then it looks like all sorts of noncognitive subsystems are going to turn out to be cognitive. For example, there is a level of description at which my stomach does information processing, and it instantiates any number of computer programs, but I take it we do not want to say that it has any understanding."

I know of nobody who claims a stomach understands Chinese or acts like it understands Chinese. I doubt anybody seriously claims that *any* system that has inputs and outputs and a program in between is a cognitive system. If such a person exists, he is as silly as Searle. This cognitive stomach is a straw man. Because Searle misleads himself into thinking a person could converse fluently in Chinese yet not understand a word, he can reach the absurd conclusion that food and food waste can be information. As they say, garbage in, garbage out.

There are billions of computers in the world. Virtually all of them input data, process that data, and output data. Yet very few AI enthusiasts would claim any of those real systems is cognitive. So Searle is dreaming up true-believers who, if they exist at all, are insignificant. No computer system as of today "understands" what it is doing. The question is, can a computer system someday be designed which does understand what it is doing.

Searle has proven nothing other than the fact that his sort of "philosophy" will get us nowhere.


[1] A copy of the original and a more easily read reprint.