RE: Maths & the Chinese Room Problem

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Thu Aug 23 2001 - 01:49:13 MDT

Eric writes

> About a year ago, I engaged in a short debate with a lecturer about whether
> students understand the homework they do or not. This lecturer insisted that
> since students can solve the homework problems, it means they understood the
> text.

> Suddenly, I realised that this has a connection to a famous problem in
> Artifical Intelligence, which we call the Chinese Room problem.

Yes, that's a cute analogy! :-)

> The paradox makes sense now. The students don't understand the true problem and
> solutions behind the problem, but they know the rules of solving the problem
> and how to apply them. Therefore, they operate like a Chinese Room translator
> who seems to understand Chinsese.

I think that it's the difference between knowing how to do something,
and understanding to the point that you can articulate it. I used to
ace all my math classes through differential equations and applied
analysis (my downfall came later when things got abstract). However,
it wasn't until I was 26 that anyone forced me to explain that stuff.
At that point I was lucky enough to be tutoring a 35 year old man,
who, not a deep thinker, was certainly a thorough and careful one.
He didn't let me get away with ANYTHING! And by God when I got through
explaining differentials and vector calculus to him, I finally *really*
understood it (instead of merely being able to do all the problems).

But how important is this more profound understanding? The answer
clearly is: it depends on what you want to use your skills or your
knowledge for. Some things I want to understand to the point of
being able to articulate them; other things I don't. It depends on
one's own values, for one thing.


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