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Searle: The Chinese Room

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John Searle has become the object of accusations of improper conduct.

These accusations even have some people in the world of academic philosophy saying that instructors in that world should try to avoid teaching Searle's views. That is an odd contention, and has given rise to heated exchanges in certain corners of the blogosphere. 

At Leiter Reports, I encountered a comment from someone describing himself as "grad student drop out." GSDO said: "This is a side question (and not at all an attempt to answer the question BL posed): How important is John Searle's work? Are people still working on speech act theory or is that just another dead end in the history of 20th century philosophy? My impression is that his reputation is somewhat inflated from all of his speaking engagements and NYRoB reviews. The Chinese room argument is a classic, but is there much more to his work than that?"

I took it upon myself to answer that on LR. But here I'll take it as an excuse to be explicit about the "Chinese room" for those of my readers who may not be familiar with that thought experiment.

The image arose as part of an argument against "strong AI," that is, against the idea that the human mind can be replicated by a digital computer because the human mind is in essence the software of a computer -- while the brain is the hardware.

Searle asks us to imagine this. A person who does NOT know Chinese is sitting in a room. Let us say ... me. The room also contains two slots opening to the outside world, one on my right, one on the left. The room has a book with elaborate instructions on how to fill out certain sheets of paper when certain stimulus is received. It also has pencils, erasers, filing cabinets, and whatever else of a mechanical nature may be needed for the following task.

The stimulus arrives in the form of a piece of paper coming in from the slot on my left side. The instruction book (which is composed entirely of syntactic rules not semantic rules -- that is, there is nothing in it about what the stimulus "means," or even a consensus that THAT question would have meaning), tells me that the shapes on this paper require that I put various other shapes on an until-now-blank piece of paper.

This leads to my possession of a newly filled up piece of paper that has characters on it that are again (like the characters on the stimulus) incomprehensible to me, except that they are the outcome of this process. Then I slide THAT paper out the slot to my right side.

It may well be that to someone on the outside, this is a question and an answer. Perhaps the Chinese characters on the stimulus had really meant, "Who is this fellow 'Socrates' of whom I have heard?" Perhaps the Chinese characters on the paper I slide out of the room really mean (to those Chinese speaking folks outside), "He was the founding figure of the European philosophical tradition."

If I recall correctly, Searle did not use the Skinnerian terms "stimulus" and "response" in this context. I have used them because I think them appropriate, that the strong AI functionalism of which he is complaining here has a lot in common with the Skinnerian view of "verbal behavior."

Searle's point is that I don't "know Chinese," and the room broadly doesn't know Chinese, even if the proceedings within the room fool outsiders. What I lack (what the room as a whole lacks) is what Searle calls intentionality. My actions are utterly without regard to the reality of Socrates or any reality outside of the room.

More broadly, Searle contends that something about the human brain has a certain causal power. It creates this wonderful thing, intentionality. Nothing going on in a computer has that causal power -- neither hardware nor software, neither the operating system nor the memory -- nor any of them together. Thus, the thesis of "strong AI" is false. 

I just thought I'd put this out there today. 


  1. The Chinese room argument seems to me so obviously correct that I cannot understand why some philosophers disagree with it. Can you present the opposing side?

    1. There's also a funkier reply that says that the image doesn't capture what is happening when the functioning of a program creates a "virtual" self, which can't be identified with either the CPU or the computer as a whole. Think of "Siri," or of an especially complicated character in a video game. These are selves to whom we don't attribute location (except perhaps the fictitious location offered by the video game, which may be set in Camelot or Middle Earth!) Some of Searle's critics will tell you that in principle the character could understand Chinese.

  2. Henry, my understanding is that the most common reply is what Searle himself calls the "systems reply." Specifically, advocates of hard AI can claim that a broader system understands Chinese, and thus a properly programmed computer has intentionality, even though I (the CPU in the room) don't. The room itself, with the slots, the writing materials, me, and that crucial instructions book, is the level at which understanding takes place.

    1. The systems reply seems to beg the question. It defines "understanding" to mean what occurs in the Chinese room, whereas the question is whether what occurs in the Chinese room is "understanding."

      And doesn't intentionality (an Internet definition is "the quality of mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes) that consists in their being directed toward some object or state of affairs") require consciousness? Perhaps here I'm begging the question, because the supporters of hard AI deny the existence of consciousness, or they define it as what occurs in the Chinese room.

    2. The Stanford philosophy site has a good run-down of the arguments, counter-arguments, etc.

      I'm with you, though. I'm inclined to favor Searle over his critics on most of these points. In my case, (probably not in yours), the reason for my favoritism may be a predisposition to believe that life, i.e. a self-replicating carbon-based ecosystem, is something very special. Given that metaphysical bias, one also easily accepts mind, intentionality, consciousness, etc. as a product, uniquely, of this special stuff and one looks askance at the notion that life is dispensable.

    3. I don't know what you mean by "something very special." If you mean the product of a supernatural creator, then you're right that that's not my reason. But don't be afraid to state your beliefs.

  3. The notion that I might be hesitant to "state [my] beliefs" strikes me as amusing. AT any rate, despite the delay, I'll state them briefly here as they pertain to this point.

    Take the premise that "nothing comes from nothing" (NCFN) as a given. This would seem to constitute already an objection to some characterizations of the Big Bang theory, at least when they are couched for the benefit of those, like myself, who don't have any reasonable simulation of Hawking's' brain in our possession.

    But let's assume that any direct conflict between BB and NCFN is illusory. It isn't too difficult to grasp how one might characterize this universe as part of an everlasting multiverse. The collapse of a star into a black hole in one universe could be the birth event of another, constituting ITS big bang and the creation of spatial dimensions not in any way continuous with the first one. So black holes are wombs of universes, if you will.

    On THAT presumption, the birth and death of a universe doesn't violate NCFN any more than the birth and death of a particular star or solar system does.

    But SOME of these universes in the multiverse host life. Now, since the spaces are non-continuous, it is difficult to posit life moving from one to another. Since life exists in THIS universe, it must have had a start in THIS universe.

    Yet life, which in its essence holds off entropy and preserves an equilibrium, while also generating imperfect duplicates of itself, seems so utterly different from non-living matter that abiogenesis (the presumption that life at least somewhere in such a universe must have come from non-life) itself seems to break the rule NCFN.

    If we have an everlasting universe, we wouldn't need NCFN anywhere. We could posit panspermia -- the idea that life travels in tough seeds from one locale to another, shot out into space from volcanoes on hypothetical life-teeming planets, sometimes reaching new planets with hospitable conditions which can be made to teem themselves, and which sometimes have their own volcanoes. THIS process one could imagine as an eternal chain without a first link, if one had an everlasting universe.

    But one doesn't. At least not according to 21st century cosmologies.

    Something very important is missing from the picture as of yet, IMHO.

    And no, I don't say this because I want to posit a Supernatural Deity as a fill-in-the-gaps measure. In my personal worldview, Life considered as a totality IS the divinity. I need no other behind it. But still, as of yet I have this gap.

    You can see how Searle's argument fits naturally to all this. The specialness of life of course gave rise to mental manifestations. It is one of the vast array of survival-oriented traits that living things bestow upon one another down the generations as the struggle against thermodynamics and diffusion.

  4. I will comment only on your statement, "Life considered as a totality IS the divinity." I find that comment to be without meaning. If the word "divinity" has any meaning, then it must be something apart from the material world--something transcendent.

    To be more generous, "Life considered as a totality IS the divinity" has the same meaning as "Life is just a bowl of cherries." They both means something like "Life is good," or "I like life."

    In short, I believe that you (and Spinoza, for that matter) are an atheist. Welcome to the club.

    1. I should define my use of "atheist." An atheist is not someone who asserts that God does not exist. One cannot prove that something does not exist, so only a leap of faith could cause one to assert that God does not exist. An atheist is someone who believes, because of the absence of evidence, that God does not exist. In other words, he or she concedes the logical possibility that God exists. His disbelief is provisional; it could change if evidence appears. This is the same approach that most people take with respect to unicorns and Santa Claus.

      And, no, I do not consider the person I just described as an "atheist" to be agnostic, simply because his disbelief is provisional. It IS disbelief. An agnostic is a person who is undecided, who believes that God may in fact exist, not merely that there is a logical possibility that God exists.

    2. It is an honor to be admitted to any club with Spinoza in its membership. Heck, let me be called "God-intoxicated," as Spinoza was, and the honor will be even greater.

      But of course Spinoza was identifying God with Being. I would say that the term loses its significance in the absence of contrast. Defining God as Life itself (subject to various refinements) solves that Spinozistic problem.

      Defining God as necessarily supernatural, on the other hand, begs the question by defining naturalistic theism out of existence. Now THAT is a conjuring trick with words, as history shows it is a very rich tradition you're defining away, with some quite distinguished representatives and (adds the Jamesian) a chiefly benevolent impact on human history.

      Another individual whom you might consider an atheist, in your expanded reading of the term, is Henry Nelson Wieman, who defined God as "the unlimited connective growth of value-connections." What does that mean? Roughly: it means "life," but Wieman allows himself room for refinement on that bald equivalence. The inclusion of a form of the word "connection" twice in the brief above quote was deliberate -- non-living stuff connects, too, but the connections don't themselves connect. Life is a multi-layered phenomenon of meta-meta-connections!

      I'm afraid Wieman has fallen into obscurity in recent decades. He was big in the middle of the last century, though, and Martin Luther King wrote his doctoral thesis on "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman." Tillich's reputation has done better than Wieman in the decades since, especially among the liberal Protestant/Unitarian circles where they each lived and breathed and had their being.

      Anyway: if I must be a member of the atheistic club, there will have to be a special ad hoc committee of that club for those of us who deludedly think we're theists because we believe in an imminent God. We'll use that committee to continue the connective growth of our value connections!

    3. I gather that to define God as life (I see no need for the capital L, or the capital B in "being," except as a means to illegitimately make one's case seem more impressive) as opposed to being serves to exclude rocks. Exclude rocks if you wish; they won't care. Seriously, I still see no point in labeling material objects "God."

      But maybe my failure to see this is that I don't know what "naturalistic theism" is. Is it something other than labeling some material objects (those that are alive) or all material objects God? I don't know James' position on this.

      I assume that you believe in an immanent (not transcendent) God. If you believe that God is merely imminent, and not here yet, then you are, at least for the moment, an atheist.


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