Monday, June 18, 2007

In grade 11 math, I thought that many of my peers didn't really understand what seeking the cosecant of something, anything, really was. That was fine, of course, because I didn't either, but their marks were higher than mine. I got the uncomfortable, alarming feeling that these students never really learned anything, but they were remarkably, frighteningly adept at reacting a certain way to a certain problem. More times than not, a question that was phrased a certain way required them to act a certain way.

I can't try and reproduce any of those questions, but I can offer another example: what is the soul according to Aristotle? The answer is, as I try and recall my conditioning, that the soul is the first actualization of a living body. I never quite understood what that meant, but this was the appropriate reaction to any question about Aristotle and the soul.

It's always a little frightening to realize that someone who you thought had knowledge about a given matter only knows how to follow rules in such a way that it's successful. Given the slightest of variation in the situation that leads to that rule being followed, this person may well have undergone a frontal lobotomy. I have a co-worker who fits this description neatly. I sometimes wonder whether he even has a knowledge of the words he uses, or if he only knows that using a certain combination of words in a certain arrangement will produce a desired result.

I first learned of John Searle's Chinese Room the semester after grade 11, and all of a sudden, all those marks in the 80s made sense: all those future kinesiology graduates were only manipulating symbols of which they had no grasp. Ever since then, Searle's Chinese Room, presciently intended in 1980 to counter the claim that computers could ever think, has explained to me just how it is that the astonishingly and bewilderingly stupid locomote in the allegorical cave that is their world. Following landmarks while driving, looking for key words on tests, stringing together appropriate jargon in a business report or literature essay and coping with adult illiteracy by matching symbols on cans of food are all examples of reacting to indecipherable symbols in successful ways.

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