Subsymbolic computation and the chinese room

In J. Dinsmore (ed.), The Symbolic and Connectionist Paradigms: Closing the Gap. Lawrence Erlbaum. 25--48 (1992)
More than a decade ago, philosopher John Searle started a long-running controversy with his paper “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Searle, 1980a), an attack on the ambitious claims of artificial intelligence (AI). With his now famous _Chinese Room_ argument, Searle claimed to show that despite the best efforts of AI researchers, a computer could never recreate such vital properties of human mentality as intentionality, subjectivity, and understanding. The AI research program is based on the underlying assumption that all important aspects of human cognition may in principle be captured in a computational model. This assumption stems from the belief that beyond a certain level, implementational details are irrelevant to cognition. According to this belief, neurons, and biological wetware in general, have no preferred status as the substrate for a mind. As it happens, the best examples of minds we have at present have arisen from a carbon-based substrate, but this is due to constraints of evolution and possibly historical accidents, rather than to an absolute metaphysical necessity. As a result of this belief, many cognitive scientists have chosen to focus not on the biological substrate of the mind, but instead on the abstract causal structure_ _that the mind embodies (at an appropriate level of abstraction). The view that it is abstract causal structure that is essential to mentality has been an implicit assumption of the AI research program since Turing (1950), but was first articulated explicitly, in various forms, by Putnam (1960), Armstrong (1970) and Lewis (1970), and has become known as _functionalism_. From here, it is a very short step to _computationalism_, the view that computational structure is what is important in capturing the essence of mentality. This step follows from a belief that any abstract causal structure can be captured computationally: a belief made plausible by the Church–Turing Thesis, which articulates the power
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