John Searle Essay

The China Room Argument was used by John Searle to critique the concept of computational functionalism. He disagreed with the notion that strong artificial intelligence is a mind capable of thinking and understanding. Proponents of computational functionalism say that if the correct software is used, a machine can have mental states. Searle disagrees with this viewpoint and presents an argument and demonstration to demonstrate that a computer does not have a mind.

The China Room Argument illustrates that powerful artificial intelligence lacks cognitive states and thus cannot think or understand. The machine cannot have understanding and consciousness regardless of its intelligent or human-like behavior. Searle uses a thought experiment to prove his point. He poses a question that, if a computer that receives Chinese characters as input and executes instructions from a code and then gives other Chinese characters as output, can it be said to have understood the Chinese language? He then goes ahead and explains that, suppose he is locked in a room with a program and all necessary tools he needs. He receives Chinese characters, processes them by following the instructions of the program and produces Chinese characters the same way the computer did. Both the computer and himself simply followed the program and produced behavior that looks like an intelligent conversation. He did not have to understand Chinese to carry out the task, and neither did the machine. His argument demonstrated that artificial intelligence does that which it is programmed to do without "thinking" and therefore cannot be said to have a mind or consciousness.

There are various critiques levied against Searle's position. One of this criticisms is the Systems Reply that agrees that Searle does not understand Chinese when using the program but deny that the computer does not have understanding. They argue that the operator may not understand Chinese but the whole system, in which the operator is a part of, does. The other critique is the Virtual Mind Reply hold that computers may have virtual entities distinct from the whole system or parts of it that may have an understanding. These virtual entities may understand Chinese if they have the psychological traits such as linguistic abilities.

The Robot Reply also criticizes the Chinese Room Argument. It states that, if an artificial intelligence is put in a body and given the capacity to move or interact with the environment, it could learn by doing. If the robot could learn as a child does, it could understand natural language by attaching meanings to symbols. The other criticism is the Brain Simulator Reply which puts forward the idea that, a machine could understand if its program can initiate the actual sequence of nerve stimulation that occur in the brain of a native Chinese language speaker when he or she understands the Chinese language. The Other Minds Reply states that, you can tell that a person knows a particular language by the way they behave. Therefore, a computer should be deemed to know if it acts in a manner that portrays understanding.

Searle's argument carries the day. In the argument by the Systems Reply, man could be the whole system but would still not understand Chinese. When the Virtual Mind theory is put to an empirical test by Christian Kaernbach, it failed. A robot would lack understanding and therefore would not have a mind. This goes to prove that artificial intelligence is not a mind and has no understanding. The human beings are said to have a mind because they have hopes, beliefs, fears, feelings, and pain which constitute a mental state. A mind cannot exist without a mental state. This means that the nature of the human mind cannot be compared to artificial intelligence. No program can give a machine the ability to understand and have genuine original intentionality.


John Searle, "Minds, Brains and Programs." The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 3 (1980): 349-356.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Chinese Room Argument. April 9 2014.

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