In a closed room there is a person who cannot be spoken to, but can only communicate through a mail slot via messages in Chinese. Is it possible to know beyond a reasonable doubt whether this person really understands Chinese? He can only search for the correct answer to a letter in a large dictionary. It is impossible for outside observers to tell the difference. It cannot be answered with certainty whether an organism has consciousness or merely mimics similar behaviour.
American philosopher John Searle (born 1932) explained this conviction with a thought experiment described, called the “Chinese Room”. It reveals one of the greatest difficulties in exploring the human mind: its subjective character. You have your own awareness and you can attribute awareness to others through inferences. But it is impossible to feel like another person – or even another being.
But that doesn’t stop scientists from wanting to understand consciousness. Three different disciplines – working in isolation – are devoted to this topic: philosophy, neuroscience and computer science. Even if the systems differ greatly, it seems promising to combine them in order to get to the bottom of one of humanity’s most pressing mysteries: How does consciousness arise?
Philosophy is the oldest of the three sciences. More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek scientist Aristotle was convinced that only humans have a rational spirit. On the other hand, animals only possess the instincts necessary to survive. Even today, some believe that self-confidence is reserved exclusively for people …
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