Philosophy, Technology

John Searle wrongs Computer Programs by denying them the Possibility for Consciousness

This is a great talk, go watch it first. I agree with everything John Searle says, except for his point that a computer program without special hardware can never claim to be conscious.

At 5:10, he says: “All of our conscious states, without exception, are caused by lower-level […] processes in the brain, and they are realized in the brain as higher-level or system features.” He continues: “[consciousness is] the condition that the system is in.” And I agree. But why does he think the same cannot be true for computer programs? Isn’t software “the condition (the state of the bits) that the system (the hardware) is in”?

At 11:00 he goes on claiming that a computation (i.e. manipulating symbols) is only about syntax, while consciousness is also about semantics. It seems that he defines semantics as what arises when symbols are interpreted by consciousness, and I’m fine with that. This however, leads to a circular argumentation when claiming that a computer program cannot have consciousness since it doesn’t possess any intrinsic semantics. Let’s say that semantics arise when symbols are interpreted by a consciousness. Who is to say that a complex computer program cannot do that interpretation just as validly as a human mind can? In a way, he wrongs the computer program exactly in the same way as the materialists wrong him when they tell him: “we’ve done a study of you, and we’re convinced you are not conscious, you are a very cleverly constructed robot.” The computer program might reply, just as he does: “Descartes was right: you cannot doubt the existence of your own consciousness.”


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