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Reflections on Searle

I originally wrote this passage in 2015. We're now 41 years into the publication, and how things have changed!

Way back in the first half of the 1990s, the philosophy department at Hampden-Sydney College invited John Searle to give a lecture. Searle gave (what I now know is) his standard talk, in which he argues that artificial intelligence is impossible, thanks to the Chinese Room thought experiment.

For years, I thought it was really cool that I got to hear one of the "great" living philosophers present an idea that has become one of the foundational pieces in the field. As a young professor, I happily assigned Searle's articles in my Metaphysics and Science Fiction course.

It was years after I left the profession that I first heard rumblings about Searle's long history of assaulting and sexually harassing his students.

I am of course aware that by today's standards, nearly every major figure in the history of philosophy is pretty horrifying. Disentangling the ideas from the person is table stakes if you want to be a philosopher.

At the same time, Searle doesn't have the excuse of having lived in Ancient Rome or even Victorian England. He's alive right now.

And yet, the Chinese Room Argument remains a powerful thought experiment. I've included it here, and have justified it in my own head on the grounds that the passage discussing Searle is only slightly longer than the one pointing out that Searle is an asshole, a predator and an abuser of women.

Referenced in

Syntax Is Not Semantics

About 35 years ago, an American philosopher named John Searle proposed what has come to be known as the Chinese Room Argument. The paper is about artificial intelligence generally, and about the famous Turing Test specifically. (The Turing Test says that if a machine can reliably pass as a human in an online chat, then the machine counts as intelligent.)