Helen Keller Was Never in a Chinese Room
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William Rapaport, in “How Helen Keller used syntactic semantics to escape from a Chinese Room,” (Rapaport 2006), argues that Helen Keller was in a sort of Chinese Room, and that her subsequent development of natural language fluency illustrates the flaws in Searle’s famous Chinese Room Argument and provides a method for developing computers that have genuine semantics (and intentionality). I contend that his argument fails. In setting the problem, Rapaport uses his own preferred definitions of semantics and syntax, but he does not translate Searle’s Chinese Room argument into that idiom before attacking it. Once the Chinese Room is translated into Rapaport’s idiom (in a manner that preserves the distinction between meaningful representations and uninterpreted symbols), I demonstrate how Rapaport’s argument fails to defeat the CRA. This failure brings a crucial element of the Chinese Room Argument to the fore: the person in the Chinese Room is prevented from connecting the Chinese symbols to his/her own meaningful experiences and memories. This issue must be addressed before any victory over the CRA is announced.
KeywordsChinese room argument Searle Helen Keller Computationalism Meaning Experience Rapaport
I would like to express my gratitude most especially to David Cole, for his very productive discussions on the Chinese Room, and for reading several drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Tristram McPherson, James Moor, Mark Newman, Sean Walsh and an anonymous reviewer for Minds and Machines for their very helpful questions and comments. Any errors that remain are entirely my own.
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