The “Chinese Room” and it’s relationship to the way that Creationists Google their “facts”

I lost a good friend a couple of years ago due to his being engulfed by a fundamentalist version of Christianity.

During the process of losing my friend, through emails that spanned several years, I was often amazed at his responses to my questions. At the time I was just learning about the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis and didn’t realize how many pat objections they had to basic science.

My friend, M., attended the same high school as I had – the same high school that left me woefully unprepared for college-level science. It took a long time for me to recover from that – I put in a lot of hard work to bring myself up to the level that a college freshman should be. I joined the Air Force in part to get that education.

So when M., as part of his argument against evolution, brought up the second law of thermodynamics, I was a bit surprised. From that 2001 email, M. says:

What about people who believe in darwin?

It takes much more faith to believe in darwinism than it does to believe in God. At least there is concrete evidence that God exists. The religion of darwinism only offers coincidences to justify a conclusion. Not only that, but darwinism defies 3 laws of thermal-dynamics. Darwinism is like saying that I can take apart a watch, put it in a shoe box, shake it around long enough and eventually all the pieces will be put back together to make a running watch.

How much faith does that take!

My explanation of thermodynamic systems and nearby energy sources, such as the sun, did little to sway my friend.

That exchange has sat in my memory as one of our pivotal conversations.

Our exchange bothered me because I kept asking myself where he learned to quote thermodynamics? From the quote above it is obvious to anyone who has taken physics that he has no understanding of what he is parroting. I did finally discover the second law of thermodynamics quoted as an argument by Kent Hovind and figured he got it from there.

I thought of M. and his argument again over the weekend as I finished the excellent Science Fiction book “Blindsight” published under a Creative Commons license by Peter Watts. You can read it online at rifters.com.

So much of this story is so plausible, artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, nanotechnology, and having your personal awareness of self spread over a host of electronics.

What reminded me of M. was the recurring theme in this book about the difficulty of determining the difference between consciousness and a really good simulation of consciousness.

Peter Watts in his story shows how a computer can be intelligent and self-aware, but not conscious at all. Watts uses the “Chinese Room” thought experiment as an example.

From the book:

“You ever hear of the Chinese Room?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Only vaguely. Really old, right?”

“Hundred years at least. It’s a fallacy really, it’s an argument that supposedly puts the lie to Turing tests. You stick some guy in a closed room. Sheets with strange squiggles come in through a slot in the wall. He’s got access to this huge database of squiggles just like it, and a bunch of rules to tell him how to put those squiggles together.”

“Grammar,” Chelsea said. “Syntax.”

I nodded. “The point is, though, he doesn’t have any idea what the squiggles are, or what information they might contain. He only knows that when he encounters squiggle delta, say, he’s supposed to extract the fifth and sixth squiggles from file theta and put them together with another squiggle from gamma. So he builds this response string, puts it on the sheet, slides it back out the slot and takes a nap until the next iteration. Repeat until the remains of the horse are well and thoroughly beaten.”

“So he’s carrying on a conversation,” Chelsea said. “In Chinese, I assume, or they would have called it the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Exactly. Point being you can use basic pattern-matching algorithms to participate in a conversation without having any idea what you’re saying. Depending on how good your rules are, you can pass a Turing test. You can be a wit and raconteur in a language you don’t even speak.”

This is an interesting line of thought, and there are some problems with this thought experiment – for example although the guy in the room doesn’t understand Chinese, the entire system of room, guy and rulebooks make a sort of “virtual mind” that does understand Chinese.

But that’s beside my point.

It occurred to me that the “Chinese Room” could consist of a guy at a computer connected to the Internet and using a really good search program, such as Google. The problem with this is, of course, that Google’s “huge database of squiggles” isn’t formulated with any sort of logic or coherence, so the operator has to discriminate among possible answers – which requires intelligence and education, or a really good method of filtering content.

My friend M. was demonstrating an aspect of the “Chinese Room” in his answers to my questions. I spoke of evolution, and he ran off a pre-formulated response that was either (poorly) memorized, or based on a hurried search through Creationist data. M. is very intelligent, but his lack of a good grounding in science, and his fundamentalist view, worked together to filter out the signal and leave the noise in his responses.

I see this “Chinese Room” effect in blog postings to sites that discuss evolution and science. It usually takes the form of someone popping in and writing something like “Evolution doesn’t explain ‘X’!” If an answer is given the response is usually a moving of the goalposts, “Evolution can’t explain ‘Y’!”. This drags on until the speaker is referred to the Index of Creationist Claims at TalkOrigins.com. If the Creationist in question objects, he is soundly taken to task.

For some Creationist objections to evolution, such as the second law of thermodynamics objection, the general response is often immediate ridicule. I think that this is due in part to recognizing that the writer in question does not actually understand what he or she is saying. (It’s almost as if the writer has failed a Turing Test based upon basic science. Sooner or later, everyone eventually talks shit to an Eliza-like bot!)

I’m not saying that all Creationists have little or no understanding of the science that they are pooh-poohing. I’m sure that in many cases Creationists are actively lying about science for personal gain and for recognition among their peers. I’m also sure that in some cases there is a genuine misunderstanding, and that those people can have their ignorance cured.

But for some, there is a sort of willful stupidity – they exist in their “Chinese Room”, regurgitating poorly formulated responses from flawed Creationist databases, and call themselves “educated”, “well informed”, or “knowledgeable”.

I’m still waiting for a response from my last email to my friend, M. It’s been two years now. But I have little hope that he will emerge from his own “Chinese Room.”