American philosopher John Serle has made countless contributions to contemporary thinking about consciousness, language, artificial intelligence and rationality itself. In his early work, he focused on the nature of language and what we are conveying when we speak and how the intention behind what we intend to say can the meaning of words from context to context.
He is best known for his “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which challenges the notion of a truly intelligent artificial intelligence. In it, he imagines a room containing an individual, who speaks only English, working with a set of English instructions to write a series of Chinese characters in order to anonymous communicate with a Chinese speaker outside the room. If that individual follows the instructions carefully, she can effectively fool the Chinese speaker into thinking he’s talking to someone who understands his language. Serle argues that, at the very least, the metaphor raises deep complications as to whether or not one can truly describe convincing simulations of intelligence as intelligent.
He remains of firm believer that subjective experiences are real — even if they don’t always describe things are they really are — and are worth thinking about in objective terms because of it.
In this TEDTalk, Searle lays out the case for studying human consciousness — and systematically shoots down some of the common objections to taking it seriously. As we learn more about the brain processes that cause awareness, accepting that consciousness is a biological phenomenon is an important first step. And no, he says, consciousness is not a massive computer simulation.