Why Mythologies Like Adam and Eve Are Such Good Thinking Tools
Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
Greenblatt is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations. His honors include the 2016 Holberg Prize from the Norwegian Parliament, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize (twice), Harvard University’s Cabot Fellowship, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
Among his named lecture series are the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt, the University Lectures at Princeton, and the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and he has held visiting professorships at universities in Beijing, Kyoto, London, Paris, Florence, Torino, Trieste, and Bologna, as well as the Renaissance residency at the American Academy in Rome. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and a long-term fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Philosophical Society.
Stephen Greenblatt: I think the first thing to say about the story of Adam and Eve is it’s one of innumerable origin stories. It happens to be the most celebrated, the most famous and powerful origin story in our culture, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but it’s only one of many, many origin stories. It seems to be something that our species does; and as far as we know other species don’t do it. I don’t think that chimpanzees ask questions about the origin of chimpanzees, or bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, but we do ask, “Where did we come from? What were the first ones of our species?” And this appears to be a universal phenomenon in culture, to ask about origins. So this is a crucially significant version of the kind of story that is generated. And we might ask, “Why? Why do we want to know? Why don’t other creatures want to know?”
Well, I think there are a number of different explanations—one is our insatiable curiosity, including something like scientific curiosity. Another is our uneasiness, perhaps, about ourselves and the course of our existence: Why is it so hard? Why do we have to labor? Why do we weeds grow in the fields and we have to clear them out in order to get food from the ground? Why can’t we just get everything we need naturally? Why do women scream in pain when they give birth to offspring—a totally natural event that is part of the replication of the species? Why are men so miserable to women, and why do they put up with it? And, maybe above all, why do we die?
So the story addresses these in an incredibly powerful though difficult way, but in very, very tight compass it addresses those questions and more in a way that human beings appear to want and need, as a way of orienting themselves in the world, as a way of understanding their fate.
The fact that the first humans are in a garden where they’re told that they can eat of any tree that they want—they’re vegetarians—and they can eat of any tree in the garden except for one, which they are prohibited from eating. And it happens that the one tree that they’re prohibited from eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was noticed a very long time ago, say several thousand years ago, that it’s a problem to be prohibited from eating of the tree that will enable you to distinguish between good and evil, since distinguishing between good and evil is presumably what enables you to observe the prohibition in the first place!
So that problem bothered people right away, or at least maybe not right away but at least 2,000 years ago. And then we have various other problems: they’re warned that they will die if they violate the prohibition. He doesn’t explain, unfortunately, what that means, and since there had been—as far as we know—no death in the world up to that point, it must have been rather perplexing. I sometimes think of Adam hearing this for the first time and thinking, “I don’t really know what he means, but next time I talk to him I’ll ask him, what do you mean by "die"?” But in any case we don’t get any explanation given to the first humans as to what it is they’re being told to beware of.
And in fact when they encounter the talking snake, when the woman encounters the talking snake, the talking snake says, “No, you’re not going to die, you’ll become like a god.” He denies that the punishment will be death. And you could say that immediately after the man and woman eat, they don’t die, so they keep going on, and this is a problem that actually puzzles many early commentators: why don’t they die immediately since they were warned that they would die?
It’s a perfect instance of something that I think should puzzle us and interest us: why is it that when we look around or when we look at the polls that are conducted of our own fellow citizens, men and women in the United States, but also more broadly in the world, so many people profess to believe in the literal truth of this literally unbelievable story.
And we could shrug and say it’s religious dogma, we could say it’s stupidity or gullibility, but I’m not inclined to say any of those things. I think that this is an incredibly powerful story. It’s very good to think with. I think it’s extremely naïve to believe that any of us can live without narrative, without stories, without myths. We don’t. Even those people who think that they’re not living with myths—maybe Spock on Star Trek, but people don’t live lives like that. We need ways of orienting ourselves in the world, and this is one of the great instances in the history of our civilization, an instance of a very complex kind, with good sides and bad sides, of people orienting themselves in the world.
I'm not the least bit surprised that millions of people in our world—despite the evidence of genetics, despite the evidence of geology—nonetheless cling to a belief in this story.
When I am reading or looking at an image or a painting or listening to music, I try to make myself as alert as possible to what I don’t get, what seems to me not to be working or to puzzle me or not to make sense. And sometimes it actually just doesn’t make sense; all right we leave it at that.
But actually I think often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging—not the thing you want to let your eyes slide over and go onto the part that looks super familiar and easy.
So for myself, and since I’m a teacher I encourage my students to be alert to the stuff that doesn’t fit, that looks weird, and to think about why it looks weird and to pay some attention to that. Because our temptation as readers and as lookers, listeners, our temptation is just to seize—like flailing in the ocean—to seize on what we are familiar with already, but then that tends to give you what you already know. I’m interested in what we don’t know.
The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
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Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.
- The Chinese Room thought experiment is designed to show how understanding something cannot be reduced to an "input-process-output" model.
- Artificial intelligence today is becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to learning algorithms but still fails to demonstrate true understanding.
- All humans demonstrate computational habits when we first learn a new skill, until this somehow becomes understanding.
It's your first day at work, and a new colleague, Kendall, catches you over coffee.
"You watch the game last night?" she says. You're desperate to make friends, but you hate football.
"Sure, I can't believe that result," you say, vaguely, and it works. She nods happily and talks at you for a while. Every day after that, you live a lie. You listen to a football podcast on the weekend and then regurgitate whatever it is you hear. You have no idea what you're saying, but it seems to impress Kendall. You somehow manage to come across as an expert, and soon she won't stop talking football with you.
The question is: do you actually know about football, or are you imitating knowledge? And what's the difference? Welcome to philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room."
The Chinese Room
Searle's argument was designed as a critique of what's called a "functionalist" view of mind. This is the philosophy that argues that our mind can be explained fully by what role it plays, or in other words, what it does or what "function" it has.
One form of functionalism sees the human mind as following an "input-process-output" model. We have the input of our senses, the process of our brains, and a behavioral output. Searle thought this was at best an oversimplification, and his Chinese Room thought experiment goes to show how human minds are not simply biological computers. It goes like this:
Imagine a room, and inside is John, who can't speak a word of Chinese. Outside the room, a Chinese person sends a message into the room in Chinese. Luckily, John has an "if-then" book for Chinese characters. For instance, if he gets <你好吗>, the proper reply is <我还好>. All John has to do is follow his instruction book.
The Chinese speaker outside of the room thinks they're talking to someone inside who knows Chinese. But in reality, it's just John with his fancy book.
What is understanding?
Does John understand Chinese? The Chinese Room is, by all accounts, a computational view of the mind, yet it seems that something is missing. Truly understanding something is not an "if-then" automated response. John is missing that sinking in feeling, the absorption, the bit of understanding that's so hard to express. Understanding a language doesn't work like this. Humans are not Google Translate.
And yet, this is how AIs are programmed. A computer system is programmed to provide a certain output based on a finite list of certain inputs. If I double click the mouse, I open a file. If you type a letter, your monitor displays tiny black squiggles. If we press the right buttons in order, we win at Mario Kart. Input — Process — Output.
Can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
But AIs don't know what they're doing, and Google Translate doesn't really understand what it's saying, does it? They're just following a programmer's orders. If I say, "Will it rain tomorrow?" Siri can look up the weather. But if I ask, "Will water fall from the clouds tomorrow?" it'll be stumped. A human would not (although they might look at you oddly).
A fun way to test just how little an AI understands us is to ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." Unsurprisingly, you won't get what you want.
The Future of AI
To be fair, the field of artificial intelligence is just getting started. Yes, it's easy right now to trick our voice assistant apps, and search engines can be frustratingly unhelpful at times. But that doesn't mean AI will always be like that. It might be that the problem is only one of complexity and sophistication, rather than anything else. It might be that the "if-then" rule book just needs work. Things like "the McDonald's test" or AI's inability to respond to original questions reveal only a limitation in programming. Given that language and the list of possible questions is finite, it's quite possible that AI will be able to (at the very least) perfectly mimic a human response in the not too distant future.
What's more, AIs today have increasingly advanced learning capabilities. Algorithms are no longer simply input-process-output but rather allow systems to search for information and adapt anew to what they receive.
A notorious example of this occurred when a Microsoft chat bot started spouting bigotry and racism after "learning" from what it read on Twitter. (Although, this might just say more about Twitter than AI.) Or, more sinister perhaps, two Facebook chat bots were shut down after it was discovered that they were not only talking to each other but were doing so in an invented language. Did they understand what they were doing? Who's to say that, with enough learning and enough practice, an AI "Chinese Room" might not reach understanding?
Can imitation become understanding?
We've all been a "Chinese Room" at times — be it talking about sports at work, cramming for an exam, using a word we didn't entirely know the meaning of, or calculating math problems. We can all mimic understanding, but it also begs the question: can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
The old adage "fake it, 'till you make it" has been proven true over and over. If you repeat an action enough times, it becomes easy and habitual. For instance, when you practice a language, musical instrument, or a math calculation, then after a while, it becomes second nature. Our brain changes with repetition.
So, it might just be that we all start off as Chinese Rooms when we learn something new, but this still leaves us with a pertinent question: when, how, and at what point does John actually understand Chinese? More importantly, will Siri or Alexa ever understand you?